Destination: Germany: Berlin
Berlin Wall Memorial
The Berlin Wall Memorial was completed in the summer of 2011, the 50-year anniversary of the building of the wall in 1961. It’s an incredibly well-conceived exhibition and a good spot to gain an overview of what the wall was, how it worked and what it did to the psyche of a people. The stretch of Bernauer Strasse where it is located was one of the places where the border actually ran through the buildings, making for daring escapes into the west through the windows (before they were boarded up). A piece of original wall can still be seen here with a recreated “death strip,” i.e. the no-man’s land area overseen by guards, dogs, flood lights and trip wires.
Many of the most fascinating documents of the time, including a disturbingly cheerful pop song composed for the erection of the wall, are in German, but the black-and-white footage of scenes from that time need no translation, nor does the powerful landscape outside. A rust-colored memorial shows the faces of the men and women who died while trying to escape. They include one of the first victims Peter Fechter, the 18-year-old who was shot in the no man’s land zone and bled to death as western and eastern guards (unable and unwilling, respectively, to act) stood by. The last victim of the wall was killed in August 1989, just a few months before the hated Cold War barrier finally came crashing down.
East Side Gallery
The largest remaining section of the Berlin Wall, the East Side Gallery runs along the banks of the Spree River for more than a half a mile. It features murals—including one with the Brezhnev/Honecker kiss—by more than 100 international artists. Located near Ostbahnhof.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
More than 2,700 concrete slabs filling a space the size of four football fields make up this visually profound and sobering memorial. Designed by architect Peter Eisenman and located at the edge of the Tiergarten, the monument is built on a sloping ground, so as you walk around the differently sized slabs of gray, you may feel slightly seasick, surely a purposeful design choice.
The concrete slabs grow taller, the deeper you penetrate, eventually filtering out sound and sunlight. As you navigate the maze, you occasionally catch sight of other visitors in an eerie game of now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t. It’s as though everyone who enters transforms into ghosts. The monument is particularly moving at sunrise and at dusk, when the light reflects on the smooth gray slabs.
Another interesting place to visit here is the Gay Holocaust Memorial across the street in the Tiergarten. It was unveiled in 2008 and features a continuously looping film of two men kissing projected inside a gray stone slab.
For an escape from Berlin’s über-modern present, spend a few hours wandering around Schloss Charlottenburg. Built in the late 1600s by the future King Frederick I as a country retreat for his wife, Sophia Charlotte, the palace is the largest existing one in Berlin. It’s surrounded by lovely gardens, and the restaurant in the orangery is an ideal spot for a cup of coffee or a glass of local beer.
Topography of Terror
This powerful outdoor exhibition of the rise and fall of the Third Reich is located on the haunting (and probably haunted) site of the former Gestapo headquarters. The exhibition is comprehensive and at times overwhelming , but the fact that you are outside helps tremendously; you can walk away for a minute, sit, take it all in. Behind the display, there’s a large chunk of remaining Berlin Wall. One portion bears a single word in red graffiti —WHY?—and the viewer is left to wonder if what’s meant is the Third Reich or the madness of the Wall. Admission is free.
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